Merging Women’s Studies and Engineering: How Mona Mohammed applies her unique experiences to transform wastewater treatment

 Mona Mohammed ● Graduate Student in Environmental Engineering ● Bucknell University

Mona Mohammed ● Graduate Student in Environmental Engineering ● Bucknell University

(Photo credit: Salma Mohammed)

For a young Mona Mohammed, watching her father work on water projects in Yemen as a civil engineer inspired a desire to pursue a similar career. Despite discovering her interest in engineering early, Mona questioned that interest at multiple points along her journey. She first left Yemen in 2008 to attend Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong (UWC) for an International Baccalaureate Program. It was there that the intensity of a physics class first caused her to question her decision to study engineering. After her time at UWC, Mona decided to take a gap year and return to Yemen.

During that time Mona had a year long internship with the GIZ Yemen German Reproductive Health Program. In that role she helped coordinate the efforts of field staff in raising awareness around issues of reproductive health, including child marriage and its impacts on the wellbeing and education of girls in Yemen. Mona says, it was during her experience that year, that she understood the lack of access to water and sanitation to be the most pressing issue facing Yemen. Her experience also helped her recognize the gendered nature of this challenge.

“It is usually poor young girls who are tasked with securing water for their families. This is usually means spending time out of school, taking long walks in dangerous conditions and carrying heavy water every day.”  

As she was applying for universities, “my friend came over and spoke about her experience studying civil engineering and encouraged me to apply, as she thought I would really enjoy it.” Mona credits this encouragement, along with support from family and friends, as a key part in her decision to become an engineer. She acknowledges how that guidance is especially important for women to push past some of the barriers they face in pursuing STEM fields.

“Even though people suffer to different extents from the lack of access to water based on their socio-economic class, water scarcity is a national problem as different parts of the country are expected to run out of water by 2020,”  says Mona. “To me, becoming an engineer meant finding ways in which my family and I could continue living at home.”

To that end, Mona moved to America in 2011 after being awarded a full scholarship to study at Bucknell University. There, she received a dual undergraduate degree in women’s and gender studies and civil and environmental engineering.  When asked how women and gender studies tied into her career path, Mona says she views her women’s and gender studies major as another tool in her engineering toolbox.

“[The major] is a lens that helped me analyze engineering problems from a gendered perspective and ask questions such as, what are the differences in the impacts of water scarcity on each gender.” She continues “using this lens, has the implication of changing the power dynamic for women and giving them more time to join schools and learn different skills.”

Mona is convinced that a sustainable solution to the problem of water scarcity has to be one with women at the center of it. She also jokes that gender studies is what “kept [her] sane”, as she navigated different cultures, and faced different forms of sexism, in her home country and in the USA.

Mona is continuing her education at Bucknell University, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental engineering. Her research focuses on improving wastewater treatment and evaluating its social, environmental and economic impacts. Mona looked at improving anaerobic (without oxygen) wastewater treatment, which produces methane. In its gas form, methane can be used for energy production and heating. However, not all the produced methane is in gas form, some of it is dissolved in the water leaving the treatment plant. That dissolved methane contributes to a great extent to global warming. As such, Mona designed and operated a biological reactor that oxidizes dissolved methane into carbon dioxide, potentially reducing the carbon footprint of wastewater treatment plants.

Despite her determination to further her studies and accomplish more, she encountered common challenges many women in this field face. To overcome those challenges, Mona encourages others to persevere and develop a support system (in her case it was family and friends) who you are comfortable going to in times of need. An important person in Mona’s support system was her graduate studies advisor, Professor Deborah Sills.

“Women have to go through a lot more to get into and remain in [STEM] programs,” Mona says. “When I was applying to grad school, Professor Sills took me in as her master’s student. She has both supported and challenged me throughout my masters. Having a professor here who would always advocate for me and at the same time expect the best of me definitely pushed me to meet these expectations, so I’m forever indebted to her.”

Furthermore, sexism in STEM remains a big inhibitor for women to continue in fields such as engineering. Having a female mentor and a role model in her advisor, Mona was able to see first hand the intersection of social awareness and justice with engineering research and practice.

After graduating, Mona plans on returning home to Yemen to “help with the relief efforts of the humanitarian crisis.” As the peace talks continue, she hopes for an end to the war and an avoidance of a man-made famine in Yemen. She intends to contribute as a water and sanitation engineer in what she hopes will be “a dawn of a reconstruction era”.   

Mona emphasizes how impactful combating the water crisis would be for women in Yemen. A resolution would mean a drastic change in their societal roles and open up innumerable opportunities.

The Power of Mentorship: How Jackie Chen is Inspiring the Next Generation to Create a more Sustainable Future

 Jackie Chen ● Distinguished Member of Technical Staff ● Sandia National Laboratories

Jackie Chen ● Distinguished Member of Technical Staff ● Sandia National Laboratories

From a young age, Jackie Chen was a scientific observer, studying her father’s movements in his basement for hours on end. Whether her father was diligently writing detailed Chinese calligraphy or building mechanisms, such as four-bar linkages (which are basic movable chains connected by four joints), Jackie was entranced by his focus. Those early experiences sparked an interest in constructing devices for herself. Jackie attributes her success to the encouragement and the mentorship of her parents and the professors that followed them. Now as a professional mechanical engineer manifesting code to understand ‘turbulence-chemistry’ interactions in combustion and to improve engine models, Jackie provides that same support to future generations of engineers.

As immigrants from China, Jackie’s parents strived to give their family every opportunity for a better life. Growing up in Ohio, Jackie was heavily involved in school activities, piano lessons, Mandarin classes, and extracurricular science fairs. It was during her time in school that her parents provided her with considerable support and guidance.

“During that time in the 60’s and 70’s, there weren’t a lot of Asians in Ohio, so experiencing bias toughened us up. I had a lot of encouragement from my family, and they taught me to embrace diversity and to not conform to what other people think I should be.”

With this steadfast attitude and the advice of her father, Jackie went on to study mechanical engineering at Ohio State University. Jackie realized early in her career the value of seeking out mentors. In college she encountered one of her first professional mentors, Professor Lit Su Han. Along with his graduate students, Jackie was invited to work on a turbine blade for a heat transfer experiment, which proved to be pivotal in her decision to focus her future work on fluid dynamics based on smoke visualization of flow over the blade in the wind tunnel.

After graduating, Jackie went on to pursue a Master of Science in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley where she once again found a mentor in Boris Rubinsky. Under his direction, Jackie developed a new skill and learned to freeze biological tissue to then observe its topology under a microscope. Her exploration of several different disciplines of science drove her to further her studies, obtaining her Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. As part of her research she worked with a relatively new tool at the time to study turbulence physics.

“I enjoy scientific investigation because of the excitement of understanding new phenomenon.  In my current job, I am able to test new ideas using high-fidelity turbulent combustion simulation tools performed on some of the world’s largest supercomputers.”

One of the simulation tools that Jackie uses now as a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff of the Combustion Research Facility at Sandia National Laboratories is something she pioneered with her fellow postdocs over the past few decades.  Together they developed the first principles direct numerical simulation code (DNS), S3D, that is used by combustion engineers and computer scientists worldwide to study the nuances of fundamental turbulence-chemistry interactions in combustion and to evaluate asynchronous programming model paradigms for advanced computer architectures.   The frequent refactorization of S3D by Jackie and her collaborators is driven by the need to keep up with the evolution of high performance supercomputers which have grown exponentially in performance over the past decades.

The tool she developed is now a standard being used internationally by many research groups, giving Jackie the opportunity to travel, present her findings, and mentor other young students.

From her work with undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students, Jackie has come to realize the importance of  future generations creating sustainable new technologies and her role in guiding them.

“It’s extremely gratifying to watch somebody that you mentor develop confidence and capability and then pursue their own careers when they leave. Many of them have gone on to have successful careers in academia, national laboratories and industry.”

From observer in the basement to award winning engineer, the roles have reversed for Jackie as she provokes thought and instills knowledge in her students, the way her father and professors did for her.

“I would tell them [students] to stay the course and not be afraid of impediments that come their way.  It is important to have good mentors and role models at all levels because it shows it is possible, with a good work ethic and determination,  to be successful in overcoming challenges and embracing new opportunities.”

How QA Engineer, Ijeoma Ezenonyebuchi, Keeps Listeners Connected through Quality Program(ming) at NPR

 Ijeoma Ezeonyebuchi ● Quality Assurance Engineer ● NPR

Ijeoma Ezeonyebuchi ● Quality Assurance Engineer ● NPR

While in elementary school in Clinton, Maryland, Ijeoma grew up with a passion for reading and learning new languages. She never thought she would find herself in the technology industry. Initially, she dreamt about being an entrepreneur, owning an international hotel chain and traveling all around the world. However, during high school, she joined a pilot robotics program, which opened her eyes to the world of engineering.

While learning about robotics and practicing coding, she developed a strong desire to build things. One of her most memorable projects was hacking with the “Hello World’’ boilerplate. She coded ”Hello Friend" and her friend was marveled to see a message just for her. “I was amazed that such a small program could bring joy to my friend,” she says. Seeing how something she built could spark such joy inspired her to pursue Computer and Electrical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI).

While at WPI, Ijeoma was an active student on campus despite her rigorous engineering schedule. She was on the track and field team and a member of the National Society of Black Engineers. Despite being a well-rounded student, she admits there were many times she was faced with a problem and wasn’t sure how to approach it at first. During a challenging engineering project, an encouraging professor once said “this seems like the hardest thing in the world right now, but it’s small in comparison to the other challenges you'll face. You'll get through this, and it will make you stronger in the end.” Years later, she still reflects on her professor’s supportive words when confronted by a difficult challenge.

After graduation, Ijeoma spent a couple of years as a consultant. In December 2015, she joined the National Public Radio (NPR) Tech Team in Washington D.C. As a Quality Assurance Engineer, Ijeoma works on the NPR One mobile application, testing and verifying new features. She ensures that the NPR One application is a positive experience for its loyal podcast followers, many who use it as their primary source of news and information. Ijeoma’s role is crucial for the future of NPR, and journalism in general, as users change their listening behavior and start accessing news via mobile devices. One of the highlights of working at NPR is  working with other diverse engineers who all share the same mission to deliver in-depth, quality content to a diverse audience.

In her spare time, Ijeoma is the Java & Android lead with Women Who Code DC, where she organizes events and teaches Java and Android development to aspiring developers. Although her dream of owning an international hotel chain did not become a reality, Ijeoma travels the world speaking at tech conferences such as the Mid-Atlantic Developer Conference, THAT Conference, and most recently, All Things Open in North Carolina.

“Technology can do great things, find a way to use it to make an impact.”

Out With The Old and In With The New: How Samira Korani promotes Artificial Intelligence & Tech in Iran

 Samira Korani ● Python Developer ● ARPCO

Samira Korani ● Python Developer ● ARPCO

Growing up in a country where traditional gender roles are still somewhat prevalent, Samira Korani, decided to break the mold of society’s standards and dive into a field of work no one considered she would. While Iran is seeing increasing numbers of women pursuing STEM fields, many women there continue to face the same challenges as their female counterparts around the world. Samira’s steadfast fixation on her dream, however, never left room for her to doubt her desire to help bring Iran into the future using artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Growing up as the only daughter with four brothers, Samira easily differentiated herself from her traditional family. While her parents encouraged her to pursue the arts and possibly marry at a young age, she found herself drawn to math and science. She developed a passion that would ultimately serve as catalyst into her career in tech.

“When I grew up, I started believing that we can use technology to predict our society’s changes and learn about our country’s past.”

This revelation led Samira to text mining.  After receiving her Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Management and her Master's degree Information Technology, Samira developed a better understanding of how text mining would be particularly helpful in Iran where the dominant language is Farsi.

Utilizing text mining with Farsi is particularly difficult due to the lack of text corpus, or large collections of electronic documents. A text corpus would serve as a primary source of data for research dealing with language, however, its limited supply makes it challenging to determine facts about Iran’s history.

Essentially text mining uses artificial intelligence (AI) technology to derive quality information from written text and transform it into quantitative learning material. Using Python Samira is able to generate new information from documents that can be converted into data for analysis.

Unfortunately, in Samira’s experience, the Iranian government still adheres to traditional practices and is slower to adopt new technologies, such as AI for data analysis. However, she does not let that slow her down.

As an instructor at Iran’s leading institution for engineering and physical science disciplines, Sharif University, Samira connects with an open source community discussing the importance of artificial intelligence. She also strives to mentor young women to change the traditional societal expectations and encourages them to pursue their dreams.

“In my field, they try to ignore me and they told me I couldn’t be a coder, but I am a hard worker, and I had a dream to work with technology. The future of science is artificial intelligence because humans and technology integrate with each other. It took a lot of hard work and not being disappointed easily to do what I do, but I will continue reach my goal.”

Raquel Romano: Combining her Passion for Math and Computer Science to Serve Others

 Raquel Romano ● Principal Software Engineer ● Threadloom

Raquel Romano ● Principal Software Engineer ● Threadloom

For many, math is a useful method for solving problems, but for Raquel Romano, math is a fascinating way to think. Captivated by how math expanded her mind and the many different methods she could use to formulate an answer, Raquel developed a deep love for mathematics and abstract thinking at a young age. She never imagined that math would open a door to earn a Ph.D. in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and lead to a career in building technology for good. In her youth, Raquel was a true renaissance woman, and was involved in several activities such as debate team, piano, soccer, and violin. Although she did not participate in any math competitions, she was naturally drawn to the subject in school. She enjoyed the mystery that math presented for her, and its puzzle-like qualities.

“I loved how it [math] clicked for me and fit together, and how there were so many different ways to reach a solution to the same problem. I was also drawn to the idea of mathematical concepts I had yet to learn---there was something alluring about trying to reach something that seemed almost unobtainable.”

The mathematician in the making never considered computer science, even when she was first introduced to coding at a young age..

“My grandfather gave me my first computer, and together we programmed in BASIC. I loved being with him because he didn’t live near us, and he liked teaching me how to code because the personal computer was a new thing at the time. He was a retired mechanical engineer who was always curious to learn something new.”

Although she did enjoy her first experience with computer science, she still decided to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics at Harvard University, where she faced significant challenges.

“At Harvard, I felt completely out of my league. The abstract math I was learning was completely different from the math we learned in grade school.”

Being an eager and self-motivated student, she dove head first into her classes, often facing doubts from professors and advisors who believed she was already too far behind in the curriculum because she came from a public school that had not offered advanced calculus. She attributes her perseverance at Harvard to the support she got from her mother and from a few classmates who convinced her she belonged in those challenging classes. Continuing on her path, she eventually collided with computer science once again.

Fascinated by other cultures, she had always wanted to study abroad, so when a fellow classmate told her about a mathematics program in Budapest, Hungary, Raquel seized this opportunity to travel. While in Hungary, she met a number of students majoring jointly in computer science and math, and that combination opened her eyes to a new world of possibilities.

“Computer science in Hungary was very theoretical, and together with classes in combinatorial math, I saw how the two disciplines connected with each other.”

With a newfound excitement for computer science, Raquel was inspired to pursue a Master of Science and eventually a Doctor of Philosophy in computer science at MIT. Now, as a principal software engineer for Threadloom, a company dedicated to reviving thoughtful discussions on the Internet using machine learning, Raquel draws on both her mathematical and computer science skills on a daily basis. Her excitement for computer science not only stems from its intellectual rewards, but also from the tangible impact it can have.

She served in the United States Digital Service, where she built technology to aid immigrants and veterans, and became fascinated by the impact of civic technology. At Google, she worked on crisis response tools that delivered information to people during natural disasters.

“Given that technology is inescapable in many of our lives, it’s important to me that what I build is not driven primarily by profit or entertainment, but rather by a desire to build technology in the service of people.”

How Vanessa Evoen’s Childhood Dream Became a Vision for Global Impact

 Vanessa Evoen ● Process Engineer ● Lam Research

Vanessa Evoen ● Process Engineer ● Lam Research

Unlike most young people, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Vanessa Evoen had an unwavering answer-- she wanted to be an engineer. Although Vanessa excelled in many different disciplines, such as fashion and art, she never had to convince herself to love the dynamics of engineering.

Although currently based in California, growing up, Vanessa was constantly exposed to a variety of different places and it was her time in Lagos, Nigeria at the Vivian Fowler Memorial College for Girls that fostered her love of STEM.

“When I went to the all girls school in Nigeria, I took an introduction to technology class, and I remember it being so fun to learn how to build and create different things.”

After that initial experience, Vanessa engulfed herself in other STEM-related classes, including a technical drawing class where she learned how to fabricate isometric drawings by hand. Her continued excitement for learning how to develop plans for houses and machine parts sparked her interest in aerospace engineering. Her familiarity with travel encouraged her to study planes, however, her plans quickly changed after taking her first organic chemistry class.

“I remember it being one of the best classes I had ever taken, because it came to me so naturally. I never had direct guidance in picking a discipline for engineering, but I have a good memory which is useful in chemistry, so I combined it with engineering.”

After completing a summer research program at the University of California, Los Angeles, it was clear to Vanessa that she wanted to do experiments in technical fields. While working on her undergraduate degree at UCLA, Vanessa dove into research dealing with semiconductor fabrication, a process that produces integrated circuits that power a variety of electronic devices. She enjoyed studying the individual components of solar cells and their ability to convert energy into electricity.

Vanessa’s passions for the applications of energy led her to graduate school.  The eager scholar knew she wanted to attend one of the top two schools in her field at the time, which were MIT and Caltech. Vanessa admits she faced imposter syndrome after being accepted into Caltech. With an acceptance rate of less than 9 percent, she remained steadfast in her purpose of pursuing a PhD.

“Engineering at Caltech is a tough program to get through, and you really have to find your footing,”  said Vanessa. “Rather than focusing on how to get an A or how to have the best paper, I was more concerned on whether my experiments worked. I just knew my passion and why I was there.”

While at Caltech, the chemical engineer diversified her skill set by transitioning her focus to fuel cells and discovering how chemical energy can be converted into electrical energy. Although Vanessa enjoys her current work as a Plasma Etch Engineer at Lam Research, her experience of growing up in different parts of the world gave her a unique perspective and a desire to make a global impact.

“It’s pretty amazing that something I work on everyday is used by the average consumer, but my plans are more than what I am doing right now,” explained Vanessa. “Nigeria is one of the top ten oil producing countries in the world without constant electricity. I am always thinking of ways I can give back and what I can do to change that.”

As the first black women to receive her PhD at Caltech, Vanessa also hopes to excite more young individuals to enter STEM related fields. Furthermore, she created the platform, Vannyetal.com, to share stories, lifestyle tips, and mentor others.

“We need more people, especially women to pursue STEM. I know that I am the only person that looks like me in the lab, but I remember why I do what I do and I know that I can do it. I want others girls to have a mentor to encourage them to know they can achieve in STEM, too.”

Fraud Fighter Zorah Fung: How This Sift Science Full Stack Engineer Helps Prevent Fraudulent Behavior

 Zorah Fung ● Software Engineer ● Sift Science

Zorah Fung ● Software Engineer ● Sift Science

“The most important thing is knowing that it’s going to be hard and that you’ll learn something everyday. Over time, being patient enough for that to play out lets you get so far.”

This was surely the case for Zorah Fung, who grew up a passion for the arts; she played the guitar, bassoon and piano and even dreamed of becoming a graphic designer for Nickelodeon. Despite both of her parents being programmers, becoming a software engineer had been the last thing on her mind.

But as the years went by, Zorah’s curiosity and interest in math and puzzles carried into her undergraduate years at the University of Washington. When an introductory psychology class didn’t fit into her schedule, she resorted to taking a coding class that would fulfill her statistics major requirement.

“I know you go to college to find what you’re interested in but you don’t always plan out how that’s going to happen,” Zorah says. “It turned out that I loved it, and I found myself doing my programming homework to cheer myself up when I was having a bad day.”

After promptly switching to a computer science major, Zorah worked to build upon her experiences. She became chair of ACM-W, or the Association of Computing Machinery’s women’s chapter. Over the course of her undergraduate school years, she worked as an intern for Google Chat in Kirkland, Washington and Google Docs in New York City. Zorah also worked as a research assistant at UW in the computer science department and volunteered at a middle school to help young students learn web development.

Zorah says a great aspect of her working life involved passing on her acquired hard skills to younger people. As a teacher and lecturer for UW’s introductory programming series, Zorah catered to the needs of over 1,000 undergraduate students for over two years. (Not to mention that at age 23, she was the youngest faculty member on campus!)

“I think there’s something magical about teaching,” Zorah says. “Now, instead of figuring out how to teach a computer how to solve problems, I had to find out how to teach humans how to teach a computer to solve any given problem.”

While obtaining her master’s degree in computer science from the University of Washington, Zorah crossed paths with Sift Science CEO Jason Tan, who convinced her to interview for the company. Despite considering a third internship with Google, she was won over by the smaller company size and close-knit team.

Zorah now works as a full-time software engineer at Sift Science, a digital trust and safety partnership that uses machine learning technology to help online businesses prevent fraud. She works on the customer-facing aspects of their product, including an application that fraud analysts use to investigate and understand potentially fraudulent behavior on their websites. Zorah also works with REST APIs, which aggregate and serve customers’ data, and a data processing service that allows customers to make automated business decisions.

“I work with some really smart and kind people… Working at a small company gives me a lot of insight, and even the ability to provide input, on what we build and why we're building it, in addition to how we build it,” Zorah says. “Engineering allows me to focus on growing my own technical skills… and it feels good to be helping [the analysts] and doing something important: stopping fraud.”

Like any woman in STEM, Zorah’s path to her current job included overcoming some obstacles and challenges. Her biggest pieces of advice are emulating the work of other empowering individuals and asking lots of questions.

“Role models are proof that what they do can be done, and can be done by you,” Zorah says. “For every seemingly trivial roadblock that still takes a lot of time to get through, I gain a new tool in my toolkit for the future.”

Zorah continues to take on challenges by pursuing her passion for teaching alongside her full time job. She plans on teaching a weekly seminar at the University of Washington this fall, covering various topics from exploring social impacts of technology to understanding how RSA encryption works. Her motivation to teach on the side stems from her appreciation for hard-working aspiring female engineers.

“I’ve had a lot of young women come up to me and say that it’s really empowering to have a young female teacher,” she says. “That’s been the main rewarding factor for me.”

** Let’s connect! Zorah loves mentoring other women in STEM, especially aspiring engineers and computer scientists. She encourages the Wogrammer community to ask her questions and connect with her via email (zorahfung (at) gmail).**

From Haiti to the Hotbed of Technology: How Merline Santil made her way to Silicon Valley

 Merline Saintil ● C-level Executive and Board Member

Merline Saintil ● C-level Executive and Board Member

By all traditional estimates, Merline Saintil was not destined for success. Growing up as poor girl in Haiti, she never dreamed of working side by side with world class engineers and leaders in Silicon Valley. But, one afternoon at a career fair changed everything.

“Actually, my first love was math.  I only stumbled into computer science (CS) during a career fair in college.  I credit this fortuitous event for propelling me from humble beginnings as a 5-year-old immigrant to living in the epicenter of Silicon Valley in less than a generation.”

From that spark of inspiration, Merline went on to pursue a BS in Computer Science at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) and an MS in Software Engineering Management from Carnegie Mellon. In late 2000, she moved to Silicon Valley to work for Sun Microsystems as a software engineer supporting Forte for Java. From there, she honed her craft at Adobe, Paypal and Intuit. Merline realized she had a passion for coaching people and began to seek out leadership opportunities.

“I guess that I’ve always been attracted to mission-driven work and in how I spend my time.  It’s super powerful to recognize that doing meaningful work has always been innate.”

When asked what project brings her the most pride, Merline reflects back on building the software that propelled jet engines while working at Pratt & Whitney. She is humbled by the level of seriousness around those products, where lives were at stake.

Having risen to the top of her field, Merline is frequently asked to speak about her experience in tech and how she navigates being one of the few women of color in the room.

“I often describe my journey of not letting where you start define where you will end. My story is not impossible, but one many would consider improbable.”

Merline focused her ambitions and carved out a space for herself. “Do not wait until you belong somewhere to go for it.  If you are waiting for permission to be powerful or to achieve your dreams, you will be waiting a long time.” She believes that resilience and the drive to be a better version of herself is what keeps her going. Merline shares how over the years she has learned to show up everyday and continue grinding -- day in and day out.

She is deeply passionate about giving back and motivating other women in tech, especially underrepresented women. She advocates that, “you don’t need to be privileged to be successful. Find something that gives you energy...be intentional and keep digging until you find it. Because once you find it...you will be unstoppable!”

The Art of Finding Yourself: How self-taught computer scientist Asta Li is bringing self-driving cars to market

 Asta Li ● Software Engineer ● Aurora Innovation

Asta Li ● Software Engineer ● Aurora Innovation

Like most children, Asta Li grew up with ambitious and ever-changing career goals. One day, she would envision herself as an artist, or perhaps a designer. Another day, it seemed as though architecture was the perfect path to pursue her interest in art. Yet as a first-generation American, she wanted to pursue something that would guarantee financial security.

Asta first began coding at the age of 13, when she took a C++ class at a local community college. She settled upon this course while looking to expand on her skillset, as her high school did not offer any computer science courses. Despite having this newfound interest and doing well, she never considered being a software engineer. Seeing some of the boys her age code and play computer games somehow convinced her that competing with them was useless.

So Asta chose a path that she felt best combined her innate artistic ability and passion for STEM: aircraft design. Asta began working toward her goals at the young age of 15, when she started studying in the mechanical and aerospace department at Cornell University. (She intentionally chooses not to discuss her age to avoid assumptions about her experience and prefers to let her work speak for itself.) At Cornell, she joined a UAV team called CUAir, which built drones every year for AUVSI, an annual international drone competition held at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. During her second year on the team, Asta designed the airframe and manufactured the competitive drone. She recalls this as the “start to [her] path to engineering”.

Although she thought she wanted to study computer science during sophomore year, Asta was accepted into a program to study abroad at Cambridge University for her junior year. Since she had already completed most of her mechanical engineering credits by this time and could not do much to change her major, Asta chose to teach herself computer science.

She took online courses, such as MIT lectures and Coursera classes, and completed assignments virtually. Asta learned Python, practiced coding problems, read textbooks and put herself on a rigorous schedule to teach herself what most students achieve over the course of four years.

“Basically anything you can learn in college, especially for computer science, is available for free on the internet,” she says. “Although I didn’t have much formal training, I was still able to get internships that were really valuable.”

Asta was able to take some computer science classes at Cambridge University, and she finished her degree in mechanical engineering the following year. While pursuing a masters degree in computer science at Cornell University, she worked at Uber as an intern and co-op student. With her interest in unmanned aerial vehicles and experience with computer vision from a research project and courses, Asta was able to work on self-driving cars and meet people who taught her “even more than she learned in school”.

“I do subscribe heavily to the belief that you create your passions. No one is born loving computer science. People develop these passions as they get really good at them,” she says. “That’s how I’ve tried to drive my career! I think the problem of transportation and safety has an impact on people’s lives everyday.”

In 2017, Asta began working at Aurora, a Bay Area-based startup working to bring self-driving vehicles to the market. Although this was originally a “scrappy startup in a lumberyard” with “no indoor plumbing” and “band practice next door”, Asta says she has learned much from choosing to work at Aurora.

As the youngest person and first female to be hired as a full-time engineer, she admits to being intimidated by being surrounded by people with more experience. She soon realized that she had picked up not only technological skills but also soft skills, like working effectively and being a good teammate. Asta says her biggest obstacle while trying to find her way to computer science and software engineering was self-doubt.

“I think this voice in the back of my head came from a lot of different things, like this idea that guys are supposed to be the ones that are good at computers,” she says. “The cultural effects are still present with the fact that very few computer science programs have an even gender distribution… and this is commonplace across the board.”

Asta learned over time that prioritizing sleep and goal-setting were most effective for success. What stuck with her most was the driven nature of her parents. She says that the words she grew up hearing from her mother were enough to keep her competitive and determined.

“My parents have a huge influence. My mom is what I would call a really powerful woman,” Asta says. “She grew up in a poor family… and taught me that you don’t have to be born with any incredible skill to be successful… All that matters is that you work hard.”

She goes on to share that “way more women could be computer scientists or software engineers but don’t believe in themselves, don’t believe they can be, don’t believe they should be and aren’t confident enough during interviews because of that self-doubt,” Asta says. “I’d love to change that.”

Transforming Latin American Talent: How Laboratoria Alumna, Shazil Tovar, Is Closing the Technology Gender Gap

 Shazil Tovar ● Front-End Developer ● Accenture

Shazil Tovar ● Front-End Developer ● Accenture

In Mexico, the technology scene is booming, with engineering and development jobs on the rise.  However, female representation in the Latin America tech scene still has some progress to make. Four years ago, Laboratoria wanted to fix that, by recruiting Latina women to help bridge the divide.

Shazil Tovar of Mexico City was one of the applicants accepted into Laboratoria’s 4th cohort. From Ciudad de Mexico (CDMX) to San Paulo, Brazil, Shazil rose to the top of a competitive applicant pool across Latin America. As a student, Shazil always thought about being a developer, however, it was not clear how she could pursue that dream.  Despite studying Systems Engineering and creating web pages for fun, she never thought she could use her coding skills for a career. Even in Latin America, getting a formal education or technical training is not enough, as most Latina Women have less than a 20% chance to transition to a formal job. After getting married and starting a family, her aspirations of having a career in tech began to fade.

Then...something happened. She discovered a new path.

Now she’s a Software Developer for Accenture in Mexico City, and has been for the last year and a half. When she first started in early 2017, she was the Angular team, working primarily on frameworks. She was able to transition to the Testing team, where she’s currently testing automation for Android devices, in addition to developing robots for services performance tests. Beyond developing strong technical skills, the mentorship and support from the Laboratoria community help her balance her new career and her family.

During Laboratoria’s six-month bootcamp, Shazil was able to learn alongside her peers that shared her dreams of a better career opportunity.  Over a 1000 hours were committed to coding, where they learned about responsive apps, Bootstrap frameworks, and JQuery elements.

“They literally sculpted a new woman, the best version of me. Every key from the keyboard I pushed within these walls, was worthy. I didn’t realize entirely what I was doing, not until I saw it presented within a real software product solution for a very important bank in the world, then I realized what I was capable of doing and I had a mixture of emotions and gratitude that pushed away most of my fears and insecurities.”

As a Laboratoria Alum, Shazil is part of the stronghold of technically trained and equipped women who are recognized on a global scale, including allies from Google and Facebook.

“Laboratoria changed the way I see women in technology... I didn’t even realize that there were so few women working at this sector [and] women talent was needed… This [movement] is just starting. ”

With over 850 alumni as of April 2018, Laboratoria’s mission is to help fill the 450,000 available jobs with as many women as possible. The end-goal is empowering women, providing the technical and personal support they need, and allowing them to become change agents for the technology industry as a whole.

Expressing Creativity Through Code: Howard Student Kymberlee Hill Uses Computer Science to Pursue her Passions

 Kymberlee Hill ● Student & CEO ● Curl IQ

Kymberlee Hill ● Student & CEO ● Curl IQ

Like father, like daughter, Los Angeles native Kymberlee Hill fell in love with music watching her dad work as a music producer. When the industry shifted to incorporate more technology, her dad shifted right along with it, creating websites and graphics for artists in addition to his producing. Fascinated by her father’s work, Kym started teaching herself how to use digital design tools like Photoshop and InDesign.

“Music, creativity, and entrepreneurship were taught to me at a very young age,” Kym said. “My dad and I had our own radio show and car wash.”

Kym decided to pursue a major in Computer Science. “I recognized that technology was a tool and a way I could better express my creativity. I like being outside of the box and code is a way to do that,” said Kym.

After attending a predominantly white high school, Kym traveled to the East Coast to attend Howard University, a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) in Washington, D.C. Affectionately called the “The Mecca”, Howard attracts students from different backgrounds who mainly share the common experience of being Black.

“Google taught some of my classes freshman year, which is part of the reason why I went to Howard,” Kym said, referring to the Googler-in-Residence Program where Google engineers teach as faculty at HBCUs. “That was the first time I saw a black woman teaching CS.”

For many Black women, their hair is a source of inspiration, admiration and frustration. As a naturalista, Kym knows this all too well. Around campus, she would hear women say, “I would’ve never gone natural had I not come to Howard,” which became a topic of much discussion amongst her and her friends who often spent a lot of money buying hair products.  

Born out of a conversation in 2016, Kym and her friend turned their conversation from a problem to a solution. They thought “What if you could just take a picture of your hair and know what products would work well?”

Kym brought this question to her CS advisor and research professor, who encouraged her to learn more about what that type of technology would look like. Kym wrote a grant proposal to research how to analyze a photo to determine hair pattern and matching products. She used this idea for her senior project, incorporating design thinking into the process.

Kym’s hypothesis was that if women knew their hair type, they would have an easier time finding products. She conducted interviews, captured and analyzed pictures of women with natural hair, and created an algorithm and prototype. “Initially, I did not think of the app as a business, I just wanted to do the research,” she said.

After a mentor told her about a startup accelerator, she decided to apply and was accepted. With the help of three friends, Kym programmed and incorporated Curl IQ, “an image analysis app that generates personalized hair care solutions for women with textured hair.” The app uses big data and computer vision technology to identify the hair type and offer product recommendations and will launch at the end of 2018.

“This is for the culture,” said Kym. “Some people won’t understand, but I know Black women will understand.”

Working as a software engineer at companies like Twitter, Intel and Spotify prepared Kym to finish her last semester at Howard and continue to run Curl IQ. At these companies, she gained experience in front-end, back-end, and full-stack development working on internal tools and platform features. One fun fact she shared is that because she worked at Twitter, she cannot be verified with a check. CEO Jack Dorsey is the only verified Twitter employee.

While Kym has faced challenges with bringing her dream of Curl IQ to reality, she says she has leaned in on her faith to keep her grounded. “It’s about confidence, knowing and believing that you are capable,” she said. “My biggest challenge is making sure I am not blocking my blessings.”

As an entrepreneur in tech, she knows there will be long days and moments where she may feel discouraged, but she is determined not to give up.

Kym’s advice for women and other budding entrepreneurs: “Believe in yourself. Believe in the work. Build a strong foundation.”